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Every day, Miyoko Chiba’s husband visits the plot of land where he hopes his family will live someday.

It’s high on a hill, beyond the reach of the sea.

Chiba watches as backhoes claw at the ground, clearing space for a new neighborhood to replace one of those that vanished three years ago in this small fishing port.

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The Chibas’ home was among hundreds swept away on March 11, 2011. The tsunami that surged ashore that afternoon claimed the lives of their son-in-law and 3-year-old granddaughter, and left the community in ruins.

Since then, Chiba, his wife and their disabled adult daughter have lived in the Japanese version of a FEMA trailer — a three-room prefab unit with a living room so small a single, low table takes up most of the space. A shrine hung with photos of the child who was lost dominates the opposite wall.

There’s only one bedroom, Miyoko Chiba, 67, explained in February. The bathroom vents don’t work properly, and it’s impossible to cook a big fish on the two-burner stove, she said through an interpreter.

“But we’re getting used to it.”

Even if reconstruction work proceeds on schedule — something Miyoko Chiba deems unlikely — it could be another two years before their new home is ready. They still don’t know how much it will cost or how much assistance they can expect from the government.

“I don’t have any prospect or any expectation for when a new community will actually be built here,” she said.

On the third anniversary of what the Japanese call 3-11, nearly 270,000 people remain displaced. Foreign news coverage has dwindled, with most of the attention focused on the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Residents of struggling towns on the northeastern coast say they feel forgotten even by their own countrymen.

It’s not for lack of money. The Japanese government is pouring $250 billion into a five-year reconstruction plan and just announced an initiative to speed up the work.

But early fumbles and bureaucratic red tape undermined public confidence in the country’s leadership. “There’s a feeling of both resignation and frustration,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist Richard Samuels, author of “3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan.”

Given the monumental size of the task, though, it’s hard to imagine any government avoiding missteps, Samuels said. Nearly 19,000 people died and a million buildings were destroyed or damaged. Government officials acknowledge it will take a decade or more for the hardest-hit areas to fully rebound — if they ever do.

The slow pace of recovery in the world’s most disaster-ready nation is sobering for the Pacific Northwest, where geologists warn that the same type of megaquake and tsunami could strike any day.

“We’re never going to have a better proxy for what we’re going to face than what happened in Japan three years ago,” said Jay Wilson, chairman of Oregon’s Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission.

Emergency managers in Washington and Oregon are learning from Japan’s immediate response to the quake, but Wilson argues they should be paying closer attention to the long-term recovery and the question of where and how to rebuild after a powerful quake and tsunami.

“Japan might make different decisions than we would, but the issues they are trying to tackle are the same issues we’re going to have to tackle,” he said. “Can we learn from Japan, or are we going to have to wait and learn our lessons the hard way?”

Still a disaster scene

Outside of the 250-mile stretch of coast where the tsunami’s fury was concentrated, there’s little evidence of the most powerful quake in Japan’s history. That’s a testament to the country’s tough building standards and preparedness.

But in places like Minamisanriku, where 900 people perished and the town was nearly obliterated, the scars are obvious and rebuilding has barely begun.

“This was the downtown,” Sachie Saijo said last month, driving a group of visitors past row upon row of concrete foundations — all that remains of densely packed homes and shops. “That was my house,” she added matter-of-factly, pointing at one weedy patch.

A few gutted buildings still stand, including the steel skeleton of the city’s emergency-management center, where most of the staff died.

Saijo, 32, was working in Paraguay for Japan’s equivalent of the Peace Corps when the tsunami struck. She rushed home to help her parents and took a job with the relief organization Peace Winds Japan. The group works with Seattle-based Peace Winds America and Portland-based Mercy Corps to provide grants, loans and other assistance to help small businesses recover.

The nonprofits helped equip and rebuild a salmon hatchery and an oyster processing plant. Seafood harvests have rebounded to about 75 percent of pre-quake levels, but there’s still an acute shortage of facilities to clean, prepare and package fish, seaweed and shellfish.

Radiation fears scared off some customers, despite stepped up testing and stringent new safety standards. And many former fishermen have found jobs in the booming construction sector.

Though there aren’t many buildings going up yet, earth-moving equipment is everywhere. Residential neighborhoods are being relocated to high ground, which means carving out ridge-top perches and flattening mountaintops. Rather than abandon the low-lying areas where town sites were clustered, Japan is trucking in fill to raise the ground 10 to 30 feet. Businesses will be concentrated in those areas, but no homes.

Only after the landscape has been resculpted can rebuilding start in earnest.

Reshaping the land

No community has undertaken a more dramatic transformation of its topography than the nearby town of Rikuzentakata

The waterfront park there once drew tourists from around the world with white beaches and a forest of 70,000 pines. The tsunami uprooted all but one tree. Saltwater killed the so-called miracle pine, but a replica now stands on the devastated shore.

These days the tree is largely hidden from view by a gargantuan conveyor belt. Workers are blasting the top 250 feet off a hill to create a flat area for houses. The conveyor belt moves the rubble, which is being used to fill in the lowlands.

The only sign of human habitation in the midst of dump trucks and backhoes is the elegant Capital Hotel 1000, rebuilt on higher ground with government and corporate assistance. Manager Masuyo Hitocabe ran for her life just before the tsunami surged through the old building.

Reopening the hotel was a beacon of hope for the small town, she said through an interpreter. It serves as a community gathering place, hosting weddings and other celebrations. The reconstruction work brings customers to town, but tourism hasn’t rebounded — and isn’t likely to as long as the city looks more like a strip mine than a nature preserve.

But in general, Hitocabe, 49, approves of the government’s plan. Having narrowly escaped death, she’s convinced it makes sense to dramatically shuffle the town’s layout and move homes out of the lowlands. “We need to make it very safe.”

“Stay with the Sea”

Many other residents object to an approach they say will create isolated neighborhoods and cut communities off from the ocean.

Yachi Onodera, a 38-year-old entrepreneur, is part of a citizens’ committee whose slogan is “Stay with the Sea.” He runs a chain of coffee shops in the port city of Kesennuma
and visits Seattle roasters once a year to keep abreast of trends. Onodera lost two stores and his house in the tsunami. Nearly 100 of his neighbors were killed.

Now he’s pushing for a greater public voice in development decisions that have traditionally been left to the Japanese government. One of the things that upsets him most are plans for a 15-foot concrete seawall along the city’s waterfront.

In 2011, tsunami surges 50 feet high or more blew past Japan’s costly coastal fortifications. The government’s solution is to build back bigger. In some places, that means walls 47 feet high.

Not only do they block views, Onodera said, the barriers also give people a false sense of security. “On 3-11, some people didn’t evacuate because they felt they were safe behind the seawalls.”

With price tags for seawalls running into the billions, Onodera and many others would rather see some of that money
used instead to speed construction of new homes and evacuation routes.

“You never know when the next tsunami will come and how high it will be,” he said. “We need roads for evacuation, but there’s no budget for that.”

Some of his friends think he’s wasting his energy. Politicians everywhere love big engineering projects, and Japan’s powerful construction industry enjoys a cozy relationship with the government. But Onodera isn’t giving up.

“There’s no room for pessimism,” he said with a grin.

Stress and despair

Across the region, grief still runs deep.

Even the bubbly Onodera has moments of depression, especially when he reads the obituaries of displaced elders.

“They used to have a house and a family,” he said. “A lot of them are people I know.”

A recent study estimated that more people have died of stress-related causes in the Fukushima region than were killed by the tsunami. Another analysis found nearly a third of children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Miyoko Chiba’s daughter, who was trapped in a building and saved by a pocket of air, is still losing clumps of hair.

Hitocabe, the hotel manager, considers herself lucky to have lost only her house and possessions. “For people who lost family members, the feelings of loss and despair are not something you can recover from in a year or even in decades,” she said.

Many communities in northeastern Japan were in decline before the tsunami, with aging populations and few industries. The tsunami led to an exodus of young people, and many residents’ biggest fear is that the trend will accelerate and send the region into a downward spiral.

Waiting to happen here

The same kind of exodus is possible in the Pacific Northwest the next time the offshore fault called the Cascadia Subduction Zone ruptures. The fault is similar to the one that spawned Japan’s 3-11 disaster and has a long history of violent quakes and tsunamis — the most recent in 1700.

Damage in the Northwest could be worse than in Japan because buildings and infrastructure aren’t nearly as strong, said Wilson, the Oregon seismic-safety chairman. A new analysis says more than 10,000 people could be killed.

Japan’s experience points to steps the Northwest can take now to reduce the long-term impacts, said John Schelling, of Washington’s Emergency Management Division. For example, while it took Japan a year to organize a reconstruction agency after the disaster, Washington is laying the groundwork in order to act more quickly.

Oregon recently wrote guidelines to help coastal communities annex land for emergency housing. And both states have new, 50-year plans to upgrade schools, bridges and utilities — though neither has committed the money.

Wilson says the coming quake and tsunami should be factored into all planning and development. “I think we’re being irresponsible if we don’t make Cascadia one of the checkboxes on every decision we make.”

Wilson has visited Japan several times since 3-11 and is frustrated more Northwest officials aren’t doing the same.

“If we don’t expend a little more energy and get over there and talk to these people, then we are going to miss the opportunity to learn from what they’re doing.”

The U.S. isn’t likely to erect seawalls and whack off mountaintops, but no one has really considered just how — or if — coastal communities would be rebuilt after a tsunami, said Chuck Wallace, deputy director of emergency management for Grays Harbor County on the Washington coast.

“What if Ocean Shores and Westport are overtopped and we lose everything that’s there?” he asked. “That’s the kind of discussion we need to start having.”

But many Northwesterners are still in denial that it will ever happen here, Wallace said.

A lot of people in northeastern Japan felt that way, too, Hitocabe pointed out.

Her advice for residents of the Pacific Northwest?

“You need to realize that such a disaster can happen at any time,” she said. “We don’t want anyone else to repeat our sad experience.”

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or

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